Pleasant and familiar smells may help treat depression

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Researchers say depressed people respond more to scents than words

You might walk into a store and are met with an aroma that triggers pleasant memories and takes you back to a “happy place.” Researchers have now concluded that experience can be harnessed to treat depression. 

In a study published in JAMA Network Open, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine (UPMC) and UPMC social workers suggest that smells are more effective than words at cueing up a memory of a specific event and could even be used in the clinical setting to help depressed individuals get out of negative thought cycles and rewire thought patterns, aiding faster and smoother healing. 

The study cites “extensive evidence” that people with depression have a hard time recalling specific personal memories and that, in healthy individuals, smells trigger memories that feel vivid and “real,” likely because they directly engage the part of the brain having to do with memories.

“It was surprising to me that nobody thought to look at memory recall in depressed individuals using scent cues before,” said Dr. Kymberly Young, senior author of the study and associate professor of psychiatry at Pitt.

Young and her team presented study participants with a series of opaque glass vials, each containing a potent, familiar scent ranging from oranges to ground coffee to shoe polish, and even Vicks VapoRub. After asking participants to smell the vial, Young asked them to recall a specific memory, regardless of whether it was good or bad. 

Young said she was surprised to discover that memory recall was stronger in depressed people who responded to odors rather than words. People who were exposed to familiar smells were also more likely to associate them with positive memories.

Aromatherapy

Advocates of aromatherapy are probably not surprised by the results. According to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, some forms of aromatherapy go back 6,000 years. 

According to the hospital, the "smell" receptors in your nose communicate with parts of your brain that serve as storehouses for emotions and memories. 

“When you breathe in essential oil molecules, some researchers believe they stimulate these parts of your brain and influence physical, emotional, and mental health,” the hospital says on its website

For example, some scientists believe lavender stimulates the activity of brain cells in the amygdala similar to the way some sedative medications work. Other researchers think that molecules from essential oils may interact in the blood with hormones or enzymes.

Young, meanwhile, wants to conduct further studies to determine whether using pleasant and familiar scents can not only help people improve their memory but also help people deal with depression.

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